Nordoff-Robbins (Creative Music Therapy)


I will be sharing a series of music therapy approaches which I have researched for my Masters’ dissertation and which resonated with me. They will all be grouped in the folder “Music Therapy Approaches” which you can click on to see. I have researched and studied these various therapy approaches and synthesise them according to my own impulses and experience into my personal approach which I will share in later posts.

One of the therapy approaches which resonated deeply with me is the Nordoff-Robbins’s Creative Music Therapy.

This is a music therapy approach developed from the 17 year collaboration between Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins beginning in 1958. It was originally devised as a therapy for children with psychological, physical, or developmental disabilities. Its early development was influenced by anthroposophy. This approach is also known as Creative Music Therapy.   

The Nordoff-Robbins approach to music therapy is based on the belief that regardless of illnesses and disabilities, everyone possesses a sensitivity to music that can be utilized for personal growth and development. In this form of treatment, individuals take an active role in creating music together with their therapists. Music is created during clinical improvisations together with the individual and not for the individual.

The touching aspect of the Nordoff-Robbins approach is that it helps children with special needs to combat social isolation or of overcoming limitations associated with illness, disability or trauma. This helps in the growing sense of community within the children instead of limited by the pathology and stigma of their illnesses. “For the child who is intellectually impaired, music and musical activities can be vivid, intelligible experiences that require no abstract thought. For the emotionally immature or disturbed child the experience of the emotional language of music is inviting: the self-subsistence of its melodies and forms provides security for him. Musical activity can motivate the physically disabled child to use his limbs or voice expressively; its rhythmic-melodic structures then support his activity and induce an order in his control that promotes coordination”. (Nordoff and Robbins 1973) To these children, music provides an empowering “sphere of experience” (Nordoff and Robbins 1973) in which the children finds communication with the outside world and “freedom, in varying degrees, from the malfunctions that restrict their lives”. (Nordoff and Robbins 1973) Dissonant and dramatic music has also been found to engage psychotic and mentally challenged children. (Nordoff and Robbins 1973).

According to Nordoff and Robbins, engagement in active music-making, when skilfully offered, guided and supported, can enable the children to go beyond what people assumed they could do. Musical improvisation demonstrates the children’s capacities for expression and interaction. This is not a method but rather the cultivating of a musical attitude which recognises the potential in everyone (regardless of pathology, illness, disability, trauma or social isolation) for engagement in active and communicative music-making, developing a sense of self as well as a capacity for satisfying social interaction.

Music when it expresses emotions allows children and also adults a chance to see themselves as they are. Now one no longer feels the emotions internally but can hear them externally as well. In active music making, the children with special needs has a chance to experience their inner self and become aware of it. The child can know and experience what type of child he or she is. An island child? A land child? Or a seashore child for example? There will come a point where the child makes a connection between his or her own feelings and the musical sounds they make. Slowly the child can begin to create expressions of his or her own self through musical elements. This is the process of finding the child’s personal identity and bringing it out to the world through music. (Nordoff Robbins, 2015)

In therapy, when the child is improvising creatively with musical elements under his control, “the vital life of feeling becomes united with perceiving, with intelligent comprehension and with action- and all are integrated by the essential individuality of the child in communicative expressiveness”. (Nordoff and Robbins 1973)

Through the process of guiding and structuring a rhythmically chaotic drum beating to one of consistency and regularity, the children learn to “order their being as they order their beating, realizing order and purpose in themselves as they find these qualities in the music”. (Nordoff and Robbins 1973) One of the strengths in the Nordoff-Robbins approach is the identity-building aspect and how it gives hope and self-confidence to older children. Younger children use the various musical structures and elements to discover themselves.

Improvisation is done in a flowing process with immediate contact with the children in a playful atmosphere. Much of the music is improvised and thus focused moment-by-moment on the children and their involvement. Therapists today using the Nordoff-Robbins approach will also make use of existing music or compose music together with the children. In some situations where relevant it is also useful to work towards performance of some kind together with the children.

Improvisation in the Nordoff-Robbins approach is a way to meet the child where he or she is and then changing along the way to support the child’s development. Communication starts by meeting the child where his inner condition is. Improvisation can become a “language of communication between him and an individual child”. (Nordoff and Robbins 1973) “The music his fingers draw from the instrument arises from his impressions of the child: facial expression, glance, posture, behaviour, condition- all express that presence his music will reflect and go out to meet”. (Nordoff and Robbins 1973) There is much searching on the part of the therapist to keep contacting and meeting the individual. The playing for eg the timing, rhythms, etc follow the impulses from the child. In improvisation, a space is created for the child’s personality to surface to become who he or she truly is from the inside. This is very much like the space created in Carl Rogers’s deep empathic listening.  The improvisations “constantly meet the changing forms of the child’s response”. (Nordoff and Robbins 1973)

A huge array of musical styles and idioms are used to search and to meet the child where he or she is at and this may change over the therapy session. There is a constant process of searching through the musical language to connect with the child. New and unfamiliar modes provide strong stimulation and are different from what the child is used to listening. Such new and unusual musical language creates wakefulness in the child. These awakening experiences can set the child into movement and increase his or her attention span.  According to Nordoff and Robbins, “the deliberate, judicious use of dissonant harmonies had a liberating effect on the children”. (Nordoff and Robbins 1973)

Familiar modes, harmonies and musical forms generally create dreaminess in the child. (Nordoff Robbins, 2015) Nordoff and Robbins (1973) studied these musical elements: intervals, consonance-dissonance, rhythms, vibrato and scale-forms which led to the development of musical improvisation as a basic technique for individual therapy.

A wide variety of simple musical instruments is used in this approach. Drums and cymbals are used as a diagnostic tool to assess the children. The young child may be at the piano together with therapist to feel enveloped and safe so that not much independence is required from the child. Drumming can lead the children into a musical-emotional involvement which is freeing for them and eventually leads into singing.

Games, stories and musical plays have been developed for children to create the playful atmosphere during the musical improvisations. Nordoff and Robbins (1973) also developed a working game that combines music therapy, speech exercises, ring-game activities and some elements of drama therapy.

According to Nordoff and Robbins, timeout is sometimes needed for the children to consolidate the various new experiences to allow these experiences to flow into other aspects of their life. This is balanced with the striving impulses given during therapy to help the children develop.  

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